FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (CN) — Arizona teachers walked out of their classrooms across the state Thursday to protest years of cuts to education and to place pressure on the state Legislature to raise school salaries and budgets.
In Flagstaff, Arizona, more than 500 teachers, students and supporters gathered at Heritage Square to march to City Hall.
Teachers also carpooled, bused and marched to the state capitol and city centers in hopes of affecting change. Organizers estimate up to 50,000 rallied in Phoenix on Thursday.
Finn Garnet, a junior at Flagstaff High School, spoke to the crowd at Heritage Square about how funding has impacted the quality of his education.
“That’s what’s fundamentally wrong with this scenario,” Garnet said. “The fact that we even need to be here to fight for what should have always been there — proper funding for schools and proper pay for teachers.”
On April 17, the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United wrote to Republican Governor Doug Ducey listing a set of demands they wanted the Legislature to meet to prevent a walkout.
“Arizona schools are over $1 billion below 2008 funding levels,” the groups wrote in the letter. “Teacher’s salaries are last in the nation, resulting in a massive teacher shortage crisis like we have never seen before.”
Average pay for Arizona elementary school teachers is $40,860 per year, and $46,070 for high school teachers.
The organizations told Ducey they sought a 20 percent salary increase for Arizona teachers and competitive pay for education support professionals such as substitutes. They also demanded a permanent salary structure including annual raises, restored education funding, and no new tax cuts until per-student funding reaches the national average.
“Schools lack the materials and funding necessary to properly educate students. And teachers don’t even receive close to the amount of pay they deserve,” Garnet said. “I’ve been in a bunch of schools — public and charter, in big cities and little mountain towns. My little brother and I got to experience so many things because of our teachers’ willingness to go above and beyond to help us.”
Ducey announced on April 12 a plan to offer teachers a 19 percent raise by 2020, but he failed to resolve educators’ concerns about how the state would find the revenue to support the raise. There has also been no sign from Republican state legislators that they can actually achieve that, as they have yet to approve Ducey’s proposal.
Organizers announced April 19 that 78 percent of 57,000 Arizona teachers and support staff voted to walk out of their schools.
“For the past decade we’ve lost a billion dollars in education funding in tax cuts to get corporations here and other things,” said Sheila White, a teacher at Marshall Elementary School in Flagstaff. “It’s not sustainable. They have not once even made an attempt to give us a cost-of-living raise.”
According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Arizona spends $924 less per student in dollars adjusted for inflation today than it did in 2008.
Several weeks ago, fifth-grade teacher Carly Stefano from the Winslow Unified School District walked into her classroom to find her ceiling leaking.
Maintenance found the culprit: a half-eaten pear clogging the toilet piping above her classroom. Without the proper funding to capture the excess septic fluid, maintenance removed the pipe and allowed the back-up to fall to the carpet of Stefano’s classroom.
Stefano, who rode in Winslow’s “Bulldog Bus” to the capitol, was in part moved by this incident to participate in the walkout. In Stefano’s eyes, her students take the brunt of the lack of funding.
“It was putrid,” said Stefano. “And my poor kids, whether they had the windows open and freezing, or they had the windows closed and were gagging.”
The social studies books that Stefano uses for her students are 15 years old, printed when she was 9. She either bought or inherited the books in her classroom for leisure reading.
Some teachers she knows are leaving the state for better pay.
“I used to tutor [this teacher’s] daughter in spelling. He would always tell me every time that I went over, ‘Oh my god, get out of Arizona when you can, like as soon as your graduate,’” said Stefano. “And now he’s actually doing exactly that. He’s going to be moving to Oregon. And he’s taking a huge pay raise.”
Ramon Fernandez IV, an English teacher in Flagstaff, carpooled down to the capitol in part because of the issues a district his size faces. Coconino County, where Flagstaff is located, is the second largest county by area in the U.S.
His district employs hundreds of teachers, and with that comes the need for substitutes.
“We’re having a really hard time filling the demand for substitute teachers we have in the district,” said Fernandez. “Almost every single day or every other day when there are more than four or five people out because of personal reasons, we don’t have the staff to fill the positions.”
It’s unclear how long the walkout will last, but protests are scheduled for Friday, April 27 as well. Most of the state’s school districts are closed during the strike, with about 75 percent of students affected.